Writing Tips

Identity, Ethnic and Otherwise

By September 8, 2017 No Comments
identity illustrated with profile head filled with mosaic pattenrs

Last updated on May 11th, 2018

As a writer and editor, I am fascinated by identities – why and how people adopt them, and how they express them socially and politically. Two of my specialties as an editor and writer are ethnic and sexual identities. I find these subjects intellectually stimulating, but they are of more than intellectual interest to me. Since I am Italian American and gay, identity issues have deep personal significance for me, but they also are important social and political categories.

As the grandson of immigrants from southern Italy, I wanted to understand both myself and the history of the people I descended from. Too often southern Italians have been stereotyped, largely by mass media and popular culture. How did these negative images of us as gangsters, uneducated proles, hot-tempered and with a propensity to violence – become so entrenched in the popular imagination? None of these stereotypes fit my family, nor those of most Italian Americans I knew.

To provide answers, for myself and my readers, I researched the history not only of the mass wave of immigration to the US in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, but also the worlds my grandparents inhabited before they left their homeland. My research, which included interviews with older relatives, answered my questions about why they left – poverty, political disenfranchisement, organized crime, and the desire for a better life for themselves and their descendants. I also found that there is no one “Italian American” story but many. That’s not to deny that there are commonalities among immigrant narratives. But no “master narrative” can capture the complexity and diversity of Italian American life. That insight has informed all my writing about my fellow ethnics, whether in books, articles, or blog posts.

It also applies to writing about other ethnic groups or about social minorities, like gay and lesbian people. Regardless of the identity or identities (since people rarely have only one), it is important to be attentive to specifics, to capture broad trends while remaining sensitive to individual variations, to not shoehorn diverse experience into narratives that simplify and flatten. One must also be aware that ethnic and other social identities aren’t fixed and unchanging but contextual and relational. People of my background obviously did not constitute an ethnic group in Italy. But they were defined and defined themselves as such in America, in their relationships to other groups, a classic example being the conflicted relations between Italian immigrants and Irish Americans in such institutions as the Catholic Church. Similarly, the identity of “Latino” doesn’t exist in Latin American countries; it is a term that was adopted by people from Spanish-speaking societies when they immigrated to the US, where English is the dominant language. I once heard a South American author say that until its more recent usage to denote people, the original definition of “Latino” in Spanish dictionaries was “the language of the Roman Empire.”

The same considerations apply to sexual and gender minorities (gay, lesbian, and transgender people). Gay men have been stereotyped as sexually promiscuous, as pedophiles, and as both sinful and sick. It hardly needs to be said that the impact of these stereotypes has been devastating, both to individual lives and to the social status of gay men. But in the mid-twentieth century, and especially after the “Stonewall” uprising in New York City in 1969, the greater visibility and social and political activism of gay men and lesbians changed how society viewed them, and indeed how they viewed themselves. Today, popular perceptions of LGBT people are much truer to life, and that change is reflected in media, politics, and popular culture. Like Italian Americans, LGBT people are too varied to be defined by a set of received notions and stereotypes.

Good writing about identity, whether ethnic, racial, sexual, or gender, deals with specifics, and with social context. What does it mean, for example, to be a Muslim woman living in Michigan, and not in Saudi Arabia or Syria? What are commonalities and differences among first-generation Mexican immigrants and US-born Latinos who mainly speak English? What is it like to be a gay person living in rural and more conservative parts of the US rather than in large, liberal cities?

In my own writing about identity, I try to be attentive to complexity and variation, context and relationships. As an editor, I appreciate authors who do the same. Two books I’ve edited offer excellent examples. One, a history of modern Iraq, brilliantly described and analyzed the various social, religious, and ethnic identities that comprise a nation too often seen in simplistic terms. Another, by a former member of the Israeli parliament, offered rich, textured portraits of the distinct communities that fall under the label “Israeli,” as well as of Palestinian individuals and groups. As an editor, I addressed technical issues (language, grammar, structure) in both books, and I also rewrote to correct stylistic infelicities and clarify meaning. Both authors commended my efforts, even including me in the acknowledgment sections of their books. I really appreciate their doing that, but I got greater pleasure from contributing to works that enlarged my, and I’m sure their readers’ understanding of the worlds they wrote about and the people living in them.


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